South Pacific

Bali Hai
2305 White Bear Ave., Maplewood; 777-5500.

I love running around the urban lake near my house, I enjoy all the detail of a deep winter landscape--the rust-red twigs of certain bushes making cloudy fireballs on the horizon, the battered bones of last year's cattails sticking out from black pools of frozen mud, the patterns of ice shadows on tree limbs that prove the sun's path.

But that doesn't mean that when I get an offer to spend a few hours in a balmy Polynesian bunker beneath Maplewood's frozen lid, I don't jump at the chance. What better counterpoint to winter life than watching hula dancers sway while you sing along with "Tiny Bubbles" and sip on coconut-tinged drinks?

Bali Hai, if you've never been there, is the ultrafestive restaurant and lounge at the corner of Highway 36 and White Bear Avenue, about 10 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. This Polynesian palace has remained utterly untouched since it opened in 1976; thus, from the giant clamshell waterfall to the enormous mahogany masks gracing the straw-covered walls, it's a worthy challenger to Nye's Polonaise Room for your good-time retro get-togethers.

As with Nye's, the food here isn't the draw. The menu is made up mainly of deep-fried and sauce-saturated mélanges, and while there are a few tasty items--like the traditional Chinese Barbecued Spare Ribs ($5.95) or the cream-cheese wontons ($3.25)--don't write me angry letters if your Flaming Ambrosia ($12.50) is neither. (Flaming Ambrosia, if you must know, is lobster meat, jumbo shrimp, and strips of chicken breast all deep-batter-fried and served with a cloak of sugary sweet-and-sour sauce. If you get your sauce on the side it makes a swell State Fair-style entrée.)

But Bali Hai, unlike either Nye's or the State Fair, has a poetic, campy drink menu. Perhaps you're feeling like a Wicked Wahini (passion-fruit syrup and multiple rums). Tell that special someone what your real intentions are--with a Missionary's. Send that blue-eyed honey in the corner a Dr. Funk (rum, brandy, and various top-secret ingredients).

Not to mention the Volcano for Two, a gargantuan, creamy drink served in a sea-foam-green, hula-girl-encrusted, bundt-pan-like bowl with a central sterno--well, it's a flaming volcano; it comes with 2-foot-long straws and it has to be seen to be believed. Specialty drinks are $3.95-$4.75, and the Volcano is $8.95, but there's plenty of beer for those of you with no room in your hearts for pretty drink fans and maraschino cherries.

Even better than the specialty drinks (did I mention the banana-laden Love Potion, the potent Tropical Itch?) is the Hawaiian floor show. Emceeing the performance is Freddie "The Big Kahuna" Moimoi, a bass-voiced man with a disconcertingly Dean Martin-cum-Rodney Dangerfield-cum-late-stage-Jake LaMotta style of aggressive humor and debonair élan. The Big Kahuna works the room telling jokes, leading sing-alongs, and introducing songs by his wife, the elegant and melodious Tuumafua as well as dances by his daughter Emma and her partner, the lovely Torita. Moimoi's 12-year-old son Junior plays drums, and the Big Kahuna says two of his youngest children, Gordon, 4, and Haini, 5, are demanding to be let into the act.

Romeo Guanzon is the fantastic, flirty guitar player that accompanies the whole kit and caboodle, but his talents are only thoroughly exploited when audience members request--or better yet, sing--tunes, so you might want to crib a list of popular favorites before you leave the house. Or consider making an appearance here: An audience member recently delivered a terrific rendition of "Under the Boardwalk," and Romeo's been known to feed unsure singers their lines. Bali Hai has a 7 p.m. dinner show Tuesdays through Thursdays, and two shows on Fridays and Saturdays (the dinner show at 7 and a drinks-and-appetizers show at 10). There's never a cover for either.

The most surprising thing about Bali Hai is how underused it is: There's something about the John Waters-does-the-prom space that makes it seem incredible that it hasn't been the site for half a dozen independent films. What romantic moments could unfold in the lounge; what comic scenes under the canoe in the Pirate Room; what ironic conflations before the golden Buddha that adorns the wall near the bar.

Maybe it's the Maplewood location that makes it so hipster-free--unless you count the very cool 8-to-12-year-old girls who seem to drive a good part of the dinner-show business. They sit there, using two hands to hold their virgin piña coladas ($2.75), nibble on chicken fingers, and gaze admiringly at the hula girls and the blowfish lamp. I especially like it when they pause on the little wooden bridge over the wishing pond and stare across the room as if they're actually on an island, scanning the horizon for passing ships.

The only thing I like as much as those girls is the feeling you get if you sing "Tiny Bubbles" while scraping the ice off your windshield. Everybody now: "Tiny bubbles, in the wine, make me feel happy, make me feel fine."

 
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